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A ship class is a group of ships of a similar design. This is distinct from a ship type, which might reflect a similarity of tonnage or intended use. For example, USS Carl Vinson is a nuclear aircraft carrier (ship type) of the Nimitz class (ship class).
In the course of building a class of ships, design changes might be implemented. In such a case, the ships of different design might not be considered of the same class; each variation would either be its own class, or a subclass of the original class (see County-class cruiser for an example). If ships are built of a class whose production had been discontinued, a similar distinction might be made.
Ships in a class often have names linked by a common factor: e.g. Trafalgar-class submarines' names all begin with T (Turbulent, Tireless, Torbay); and Ticonderoga-class cruisers are named after American battles (Yorktown, Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, Anzio). Ships of the same class may be referred to as sister ships.
The name of a naval ship class is most commonly the name of the lead ship, the first ship commissioned or built of its design. However, other systems can be used without confusion or conflict. A descriptive name may be used; for example it was decided to group destroyers made to the same design as HMS Tomahawk, all named after weapons, as the Weapon rather than Tomahawk class.
In European navies a class is named after the first ship commissioned regardless of when she was ordered or laid down. In some cases this has resulted in different class names being used in European and U.S. references; for example, European sources record the Colorado-class battleships of the United States Navy as the "Maryland class", as USS Maryland was commissioned before USS Colorado.[contradictory]
The West German Navy (Bundesmarine) used a three-digit type number for every class in service or in advanced project state. Modified versions were identified by a single letter suffix. After the reunification of Germany the German Navy (Deutsche Marine) kept the system. Informally, classes are also traditionally named after their lead ships.
The Indonesian Navy has a traditional naming for its ships. Moreover, the ship's type and missions can be identified by the first number on the ship's three-digit hull number, which is placed on the front bows and the back of the stern. The naming convention is such as:
Russian (and Soviet) ship classes are formally named by the numbered project that designed them. That project sometimes, but not always, had a metaphorical name, and almost always had a NATO reporting name. In addition, the ships of the class would be numbered, and that number prefixed by a letter indicating the role of that type of vessel. For example, Project 641 had no other name, though NATO referred to its members as Foxtrot-class submarines.
The British Royal Navy has used several methods of naming classes. In addition to the accepted European convention, some classes have been named after a common theme in the included ships' names, e.g., Tribal-class destroyers, and some classes were implemented as an organizational tool, making traditional methods of naming inefficient. For instance, the Amphion class is also known as the A class. Most destroyer classes were known by the initial letter used in naming the vessels, e.g., V and W-class destroyers. Classification by letter also helped to conflate similar smaller classes of ships as in the case of the C-class destroyers of 1913 whose names spread across the alphabet. Since the end of the Second World War, Royal Navy ship classes have also been known by their type number (e.g. Type 42 destroyer.)
In the United States Navy, unlike most other navies, the first ship in a class to be authorized by Congress is the designated class leader and gives the name to the class, regardless of the order in which the ships of that class are laid down, launched or commissioned. Due to numbering conventions the lead ship almost always has the lowest hull number of her class. (During World War II the award of construction contracts was not always congruent with completion, so many ships had higher hull numbers than later-class ships.)
Merchant ships are almost always classed by a classification society. These vessels are said to be in class when their hull, structures, machinery, and equipment conform to International Maritime Organization and MARPOL standards. Vessels out of class may be uninsurable and/or not permitted to sail by other agencies.
A vessel's class may include endorsements for the type of cargo such as "oil carrier", "bulk carrier", "mixed carrier" etc. It may also include class notations denoting special abilities of the vessel. Examples of this include an ice class, fire fighting capability, oil recovery capability, automated machinery space capability, or other special ability.
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